The Golden Age of Hollywood is superior to today’s sausage factory in many ways, but no more so than in its capacity for scandal and cover-up. Whereas today assorted stars and celebrities court infamy because, like the saying goes, bad publicity is still publicity, the glamour kings and queens of yesteryear cared so much about the pretense of respectability that they worked tirelessly to keep their dirty laundry firmly under wraps. Agents, investigators, and even top dogs at the studios themselves remained on call to ensure that everything from botched abortions to drunken escapades were kept out of the morning papers. Such efforts weren’t always successful (even then, gossip rags kept poison pens feverishly working), but because the actors were property rather than free agents, it was imperative to brush away all hints of the unsavory. If a leading man was gay, marry him off to a hot female property and stifle the rumors. If a young starlet was knocked up by a married man, send her away to a studio doctor and make the bump quietly disappear. And if someone — anyone — got a little too big for his or her britches, do whatever it takes to make them play ball once again. Failing that, there’s always murder.

Hollywoodland is just the sort of film to bring that world back to life, even if it channels L.A. Confidential and Chinatown a bit too often for its own good. It’s nowhere near either of those pictures, of course, but it does manage to be delightfully seedy and downbeat on its own terms. After all, this is the time of moguls and titans — an era of colossal egos that matched the widescreen compositions that were trying so desperately to compete with television. Moreover, everyone was on the take, fucking around, or taking the low road to gain that extra advantage. And then we have George Reeves (Ben Affleck), a decent guy by all accounts, but a struggling actor trying to find semi-respectable work that will keep the creditors off his back. Nothing comes his way until a TV gig — Adventures of Superman — changes his life forever. Reeves never feels up to it (it’s beneath a dignified actor, is it not?), and he treats it like a temporary setback until the real offers start pouring in. But they never do. Even today, Reeves is remembered as “the Superman guy who shot himself”, which would likely horrify the man to no end. The scripts were terrible, the effects well below bargain basement, and his fellow actors stiff amateurs, but he always felt above it all, even if it might have been the one and only shot he’d ever really have.

Thankfully, though, this is not a Reeves bio-pic, but rather an investigation into his mysterious demise, because the filmmakers know quite well that that’s the only reason we’re tuning in. Even those who have never seen a frame of the show, or could tell you what the man even looked like, have some idea about his passing: that during a party, he went upstairs, a shot rang out, and he was found stone fucking dead. Suicide? Murder? A vast conspiracy involving the Hollywood elite? We all know the official verdict, but unanswered questions persist to this day. Weren’t there other bullet holes found in the ceiling and floor? Why did it take 45 minutes to call the police? And what about George’s affair with the wife of Eddie Mannix, a head honcho over at MGM? It had all the ingredients of a cheap melodrama — man on the skids meets a violent death, a lady scorned remains under a cloud of suspicion, a cigar-chomping boss with mob ties…..it practically writes itself, after all.

But rather than tell it straight, the screenplay uses the framing device of a post-mortem investigation to bounce from the past to the present (meaning the days following Reeves’ death). Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a Jake Gittes-style private dick (the movie even opens with an assignment involving a cheating spouse) who’s all business, until he’s forced to re-assess his profession after a bloody murder, a betrayal, and a thorough ass-kicking. Simo’s presence allows us to explore the seamier side of Hollywood, but at times it feels unnecessary, as if we “needed” a moral center to keep us from feeling too dirty. Simo acquires a conscience of sorts by the end, if only to be a better example for his floppy-eared son, who is himself depressed over Superman’s death (though I suspect it’s because mommy and daddy are estranged). I’d have preferred the story not try to force redemption through family (a common enough occurrence in film to negate any efforts to tar it with a liberal brush), but as Reeves remains a non-entity throughout (if we care at all, it’s because he was once famous), we apparently need someone to believe in. He’s a seeker of truth, after all, and his beatings prove to us that he was on the right track. The movie ends with numerous explanations being offered, which might strike some as cowardly, but to me seems appropriate, as the hard, unshakable truth appears to be unattainable. Given that at the time of his death, Reeves was a has-been on the cusp of joining the wrestling circuit, it seems likely that he killed himself out of shame and humiliation, but the L.A. of the day was grimy and nasty enough to make murder a viable alternative.

Sure, Hollywoodland isn’t grand filmmaking, nor is it even necessary at this late date, but it’s unavoidably interesting, if only because it tells its story with straightforward competence. It’s not full of tricks or last-minute reversals, so it has the decency to stay close to its ultimate purpose. Sure, it’s a bit dull on its face, but not necessarily in its execution. Affleck isn’t as good as some are saying, but he’s good enough, which means that at the very least, he doesn’t remind us too often that he’s Ben Affleck. Reeves was a bland Joe Average, and as such Affleck is a more than suitable stand-in. We see that he’s compromised (Mrs. Mannix, played by Diane Lane, buys him a house and keeps him on a short leash), but he doesn’t have the star power to make it on his own. He’s not corrupt, per se, but is surely lacking the self-confidence to move forward in such an unforgiving town. That’s as deep as his character gets, but rather than a flaw, it adds to the sadness of the whole affair. Here’s an ordinary man who gets a break, rides it on a brief flirtation with fame, and then falls back to earth where he belongs. He’s forever the Man of Steel (a brief part in From Here to Eternity is cut because test audiences can’t accept him without a cape and tights), and that’s more than he had any right to expect from this life. The poor sap.